When I got this movie out of the library, I thought that it was the movie upon which Chris Rock’s Down To Earth was based. Turns out that was the 1978 movie of the same name. Even without seeing the other, I can say with near certainty that I got lucky with my mix-up.
Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is the screen adaptation of Leslie Bush-Fekete’s play “Birthday.” It tells the story of a man, Henry Van Cleve, who, having recently died, arrives in Hell in order to spend the rest of eternity, figuring that the kind of life that he has led is unfit for salvation. The devil admits that he hasn’t had a chance to review his file, and asks Henry to explain why he deserves to be in Hell. The rest of the movie plays out as he narrates his birth to his death, paying special attention to the women who have helped him along the path to damnation.
While the plot sounds captivating, the whole afterlife experience merely acts as a frame for the story. It gives us a reason to listen to Henry’s story and allows for a feel-good resolution. The real meat-and-potatoes is in the characters he encounters in his life.
As we’re used to in a lot of Classical Hollywood Cinema, the characters are a bit too big to be believable. In Heaven Can Wait, this trait is recognized and expanded in order to parodize certain character types. Everyone is devoted to filling the role they have assigned themselves, well into the realm of absurdity. The characters, along with the clever dialogue, are the tools that create the whimsical gaiety that make the film so enjoyable.
As we move through his life, Henry remains dedicated to his assumed personality, but is forced to confront its illusory nature when his wife starts to call “bullshit.” By allowing someone into his life, and sharing himself with her completely, he winds up in the position where he has to reconcile his rogue-ish identification with the sincere love he feels for her. Their relationship, although based on ridiculous courting antics, is convincing and heart-warming.
It would be a shame to not mention Charles Coburn’s performance as Henry’s grandfather. The movie is respectful of old age, and gives due credit to the experience that comes with it. The grandfather, alone, is able to see situations for exactly what they are, unclouded by self-induced personalities. He has also lived long enough to realize the unimportance of shame. He does what he pleases and says what he thinks, all with more of an appreciation and zest for life than anyone else onscreen. He is an immensely satisfying character who I cannot imagine having been played better.